American Academy of Religion Elects a Theologian as Its New Vice-President

I have never been to a meeting of the American Academy of Religion. I don’t usually run with the religious studies crowd, but as a historian of American religion and a person of faith I am often interested in what goes on at this massive annual meeting.   I am also interested in the AAR because many of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home are members. 

This year, probably because I am on sabbatical and have time, I followed the #aarsbl15 twitter feed. I learned a lot in the process. (Thanks for all the religious tweeters out there!).  I also published reports from the floor of the conference.  (Thanks so far to John WilseyMary Beth Connolly, Andrew Henry, and David Krueger). 

Until I read Matthew Hunter‘s informative blog post I had no idea that the AAR elected David Gushee, an evangelical theologian, to the position of vice-president.  Matt’s post also helped me to realize why the election of a theologian to a position of leadership in the AAR might be considered controversial.

Here is a taste of Matt’s post:

Gushee’s election was controversial because some people in the AAR think the organization should represent scholars who study religion using disciplines like history, psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc. Theologians are “doing” religion, and therefore they don’t really belong in the leadership. This election was especially controversial because the VP will become the President and this year both nominees were theologians. So, for some people in AAR, this is like having a research-subject (psychiatric patient) as the head of a psychiatric research association. It’s okay for religious people to be scholars as long as their scholarship is not itself a form of religious practice. This is where the State of the Union and the State of the AAR converge. Even though a LOT of Christian seminarians, theologians, biblical scholars and other religious people are members of AAR and many AAR sub-groups are “religious” in nature, AAR has reflected a post-Christendom context (the last 3 Presidents were not theologians of any religious tradition). But does it now? Is this a “victory” in some sort of culture-war?
I don’t know how Gushee feels about the resistance to his election or if he feels any resentment coming at him. He seems like a very gentle person who would not hold any grudges, but after all he was elected, and maybe that indicates that AAR isn’t as post-Christendom as some people think. I anticipate a movement of non-religious scholars to “take back the AAR” in future elections. For conservative Christians in the AAR, Gushee’s stance on LGBT folks in the church (still a clear minority opinion in Christian institutions) is still indicative of post-Christendom society or even secular ideals of individualism creeping in to the church. I don’t know if Gushee feels any resentment coming at him from that corner of the AAR either.

Read the entire post here.

Mary Beth Connolly: "A Historian Walks into a Religion and Theology Conference and…."

Cross-posted from One Solid Comfort

In another post from the floor of the American Academy of Religion annual meeting, Mary Beth Connolly discusses her experience as a historian at a religion conference.  This post was originally written for her blog One Solid Comfort.  We appreciate Mary Beth allowing us to publish it here. For Mary Beth’s previous cross-listed post click here.-JF
Yesterday, I had another full day at the AAR/SBL in Atlanta.  In the morning I attended a session on Anti-Catholic Protest, saw some friends that I met while working at the LFP, and then participated in the Women’s Caucus’ publishing Roundtable.
In the morning, I attend the North American Religions Section’s panel Protesting Catholics: The “New Anti-Catholicism” and the Politics of Public Religion in North America.  Amy Koehlinger, Oregon State University, presided, and Anthony Petro, Boston University, Hillary Kaell, Concordia University, Montreal, and Kathleen Holscher, University of New Mexico presented.  Robert A. Orsi, Northwestern University, responded.
[Disclaimer: I did try to attend a panel that did not involve a Catholic theme.  Really.   I just really wanted to see what these presenters had to say.]
This panel looked at more recent events in Catholic studies and included a examination of AIDS activists and use of camp in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Petro), Québécois feminist protests in Montreal in the early 2000 (Kaell), and contemporary Native American protest (Holscher). The last presentation looked specifically at the recent canonization of Junipero Serra as a means of looking at the larger protest movement.
This panel was engaging, thoughtful, and challenging. Like the West/Sales plenary from the day before, I need more time to really process the ideas offered.  One takeaway is the idea that Catholicism or Catholicity is not fixed.  The recent assertion that there is a “new” Anti-Catholicism originating from liberal democracy and more specifically from the Left was challenged by the panel.  Left and Right, Liberal and Conservative, Anti-Catholic and Catholic do not fit the reality of these protest movements.   I found Hillary Kaell’s paper about Québécois feminist very compelling as she argues that these activists are seen as a part of a French Canadian Catholic culture.  With Petro, Holscher, and later Orsi’s response, I took away a better understanding of (what I secretly believed, thank you panel) a broader Catholic belonging.  The conversation actually reminded me of Terrence Fishers’ The Catholic Counterculture Among the many things Fisher does in this book is talk about how Jack Kerouac is formed by Catholicism. (Fisher talks a lot about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement in this text, too.)
The other thing I took from this panel and haven’t quite finished chewing on it is a new understanding of Public Catholicism.  I call this a new understanding on purpose, because of David O’Brien’s 1996 book, Public Catholicism.  The book was not mentioned, but I imagine it was in the back of people’s minds.  O’Brien writes about an earlier period and a different immigrant/American church. What the panel (and Holscher in particular) articulated was something different.  And here is what I am chewing on.  How is it different and what does that mean?  Or is it different?  Still chewing.
After that, I spent the afternoon looking around, having lunch with a friend, and catching up with people I haven’t seen in a while.  I hadn’t expected to see many of these lovely people, so that made my afternoon quite fun.  Then, came the roundtable.
I must confess, I was a bit nervous.  I didn’t know anything about the Women’s Caucus.  What would the roundtable be like? How would the presentations go? Would I keep to time? (Nope.) Would anyone want to be in my breakout group?  As it turned out, it was a wonderful experience and I got to meet some lovely people all engaged in the project of advancing and incorporating scholarship by and about women in a thought and meaningful way (read: not as additive or other in the cannon).
I have a lot to say about this panel and this post is getting long. And I have to head to the airport! More soon.  For now, thank you AAR/SBL 2015, it was an interesting and enjoyable time!

Andrew Henry: Careers Beyond the Academy: Another Plan A

Andrew Henry is back, reporting from the floor of the American Academy of Religion meeting in Atlanta.  See his previous post here.–JF
Careers Beyond the Academy: Another Plan A
Lest I rehearse a tired refrain, I’ll simply say: Tenure-track positions in the humanities are increasingly scarce. As the reality of this situation sinks in for the academy, large academic organizations such as the MLA and AHA have turned the discussion to supporting “alternate academic careers,” or alt-ac careers, for their recent graduates. The AAR and SBL have somewhat lagged behind in these efforts, but a new working group, The Applied Religious Studies Working Group, seeks to change this.
Dr. Cristine Hutchison-Jones, a successful alt-ac guru in her own right, spearheaded the working group. Dr. Hutchison-Jones graduated with a PhD in Religious Studies from Boston University and immediately entered into an administrative position at Harvard University. She now serves as an administrative director at Harvard Law School’s Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics.
Her first order of business was to change the rhetoric from “Plan B Careers” to “Another Plan A Career.” “Plan B,” she argues, implies that a non-academic career is a place of last resort and subtly shames recent PhD grads into thinking they haven’t managed to secure the actual goal.
Rather than thinking of PhD training as a one-track rail to academia, the panelists urged the audience to embrace the multi-linear nature of careers, the way that careers grow organically based on how you respond to the opportunities put in front of you.
Indeed, the panelists reflected the multiple directions a PhD in Religion can take you. In addition to academic administrators, the panel included a marketing analyst, a non-profit director, and a media and communications specialist. Each one of the panelists clearly leveraged the skills they obtained in graduate school in imaginative ways to find challenging and fulfilling work outside of the academy.

Imagination, it seems, is the critical skill. In the words of Dr. Hutchison-Jones, an alternative Plan A Career is not an issue of preparation, “but an issue of imagination.” And although traditional PhD programs may be slow to offer better preparation for the realities of the job market, the Applied Religious Studies Working Group hopes to lay the groundwork for fostering future imaginative thinking about careers beyond the academy. 

John Wilsey Reflects on Day 1 of the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting

John Wilsey of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary offers another dispatch from the American Academy of Religion meeting in Atlanta.  Check out his first report here.

It was a busy day—after lunch on Saturday, I went back to the book display to walk the second level, and still didn’t see everything. Although, I was excited to see Phillip Luke Sinitiere’s new book on Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen, Salvation With a Smile, published by NYU Press. If you haven’t seen Sinitiere’s book yet, it is a must read. I was privileged to read the manuscript, and the book offers groundbreaking insight, not only into Osteen’s ministry, but also into the character of American Free Church evangelicalism in the 21st century as a whole.
On Saturday afternoon, I attended the Religion and US Empire Seminar. The topic was “Conceptualizing American Empire: Theoretical and Methodological Approaches.” All five of the presentations were fascinating, but the question and answer session toward the end was one of the most productive, helpful, and engaging Q & A sessions I have ever witnessed. Often at the end of a long session with four or more papers read, participants are tired—and when a session ends right before supper, people are not only tired, but also hungry.
But not this time. I can’t even remember all the questions that were asked, but they were all penetrating. One person asked about how Americans view categories such as “empire,” “imperial,” and “colonial” in comparison with how the British, or even the Russians might view those categories. She followed this question up with one on how religion influences empire, and also how empire influences religion. Someone else brought up the differences between frontier and border when it comes to demarking empires, which resulted in an interesting conversation about empires being defined in terms of space or power. Sylvester Johnson of Northwestern University addressed this issue in his presentation, and he stressed that empires are defined not in terms of geography, but in terms of power. It occurred to me that in the early American republic, both forms of empire evolved: in the Old Northwest, the Northwest Ordinance set the pattern for settlement and governance, and this pattern was geographically based. But in the South, the plantation system spread west, laying the foundations for American economic power and expanding the institution of slavery. Space and power seem both to provide a basis for the concept of empire in America, and adding the development of American civil religion to this concept makes the subject so much more interesting to consider.
I’m looking forward to what tomorrow holds. AAR/SBL is pretty overwhelming, and not a little intimidating. I’m relatively new to the society, so I don’t know very many people. And I’m an introvert, so the thought of walking up to someone and introducing myself in an effort to strike up a conversation is about as appealing as putting my hand into a cage full of tarantulas.
So, I enjoy being alone in a crowd. I like to take it all in, roam the book displays, sit on a sofa with a cup of coffee and people-watch. (There aren’t very many places to sit. There are over 10,000 people here, and painfully few chairs in the common areas of the Hyatt Regency). I like to see what books people are buying, and what books people look at but then put back on the shelf. It was the first full day of the conference today, so it is also fun for me to watch old friends seeing each other for the first time in a long time. You can always tell who these are, because they are the ones that greet one another the most loudly, and usually with lots of hugging and hearty hand shaking.
I teach at a conservative Baptist seminary, so my own contact with people who think differently about faith than I do is quite limited on a day-to-day basis. I’m fairly confident that not as many people who attend AAR get that excited about the debates going on in my circles—supralapsarianism vs. infralapsarianism, covenant theology vs. dispensationalism, Radical vs. Magisterial Reformation, General vs. Particular Baptism, inerrancy vs. authority, etc., etc. There are Muslims, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Buddhists, and Pagans here. There are feminists, LBGTIQs, and secularists. There is a Pentecostal/Charismatic Movements Group meeting at the same time as the Qu’ran Group, the Religions, Social Conflict, and Peace Group, and the Schleiermacher Group meets. There are dozens of other groups as well. It is a seriously diverse crowd, and it is definitely an education for me to listen in on the conversations as they take place in both formal and informal settings. Of course, I don’t share many of the faith commitments that other communities represented here hold, but it is a lot of fun to be exposed to new, and sometimes challenging, ideas.

I ended the day watching the Baylor vs. Oklahoma State game.  Which reminds me—my friend Arthur Remillard is presiding over the Religion, Sport, and Play Group this Monday morning. Stay tuned.

Mary Beth Connolly Checks In With Some Thoughts on the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting

Cross-posted from One Solid Comfort

Mary Beth Connolly teaches history at Purdue University-North Central and was formerly Assistant Director of the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts at Valparaiso University.  She is the author of Women of Faith: The Chicago Sisters of Mercy and the Evolution of a Religious Community. We are thrilled to cross-post Mary Beth’s posts from this weekend’s meeting of the AAR in Atlanta. This post was originally written for her blog One Solid Comfort–JF

I was asked yesterday by a friend if the American Historical Association’s annual meeting is like the AAR/SBL.  Before I came to this conference, I thought it had to be sort of the same.  You know, lots of tweed, people who look like they could use fresh air, the occaisional panicked looking job candidate, and playing spot-my-historian-heroes to pass the time when I am not trolling the book exhibit. And so far, there is a lot of that.  Except the book exhibit (haven’t been there yet).  And I don’t recognize a lot of names/faces. The AAR/SBL, however, seems much bigger.  Much bigger.  Maybe I haven’t been to a conference of this size in a while or maybe I have been to a lot of AHA meetings, but the annual history conference (that coincidentally meets in Atlanta as well) doesn’t seem so massive.
I am impressed with the number of sessions/groups/panels that there are at this conference which brings both the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature and some associated groups together every year.  What I have seen and heard is impressive.  As one not versed in theology, I must confess some papers are bit over my head.  I, however, appreciate the questions asked.  I will have to digest it all, but I hope I can come away from this experience with much that will help my own work.
In the morning, I attended the Vatican II Studies Group session, Catholicism vis-à-vis Modernity and Beyond: Religious Liberty, Other Faiths and “Signs of the Times.”  I enjoyed Francesca Cadeddu’s paper on John Courtney Murray and religious freedom (Debate on Religious Freedom in the Light of Dignitatis Humanae and Its Reception).  I also found Nancy Dallavalle’s presentation The Risk of Catholicity: Dignitatis Humanae Comes to the Synod on the Family quite thought provoking.  Dallavalle talked about a culture of risk which exists now.  By this she means the real and perceived understanding or a world at risk.  She pushed her audience to consider how a Catholic outlook can exist with this outlook.  More specifically she states:
Dignitatis Humanae (1965), particularly its dyad “freedom” and “truth,” attempts to position the person vis-à-vis the state, for a church that must engage across all variety of political systems. This paper will introduce the notion of “risk” as a complicating factor in this dynamism, as perceptions of risk (whether from non-state violent actors; or economic policies or sanctions; or juridical actions) drive us to both join and sunder our community-making relationships. Bringing the immediate context of DH into dialogue with the discussion surrounding both “religious freedom” in the U.S. and the upcoming Synod on the Family, this paper will thus examine the rhetoric of “risk” as it proposes a theological perspective on the inner resilience of “catholicity.” from Dallavalle’s abstract
The other highlight (and I almost didn’t go) was the plenary , Racial Injustice and Religious Response from Selma to Ferguson with Imani Perry, Princeton University, Cornel West, Union Theological Seminary, and Ruby Nell Sales, SpiritHouse Project, Atlanta, GA. This description is from the program abstract:
The annual meeting focuses on “Valuing the Study of Religion,” which includes pondering how religion has been valued—and devalued—in public spaces. Addressing a variety of social spaces from the legislature to the streets, this panel analyzes religious responses to racial injustice. In 2015, the fiftieth anniversary of the historic march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, attending to injustice seems more morally urgent than ever. Considering both the historical trajectory that led us to this painful moment and the religious resources activists have employed, this conversation brings together notable voices to offer their assessments of the contemporary situation. Ruby Sales, the human rights activist and public theologian who joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s and later founded a non-profit organization dedicated to “racial, economic, and social justice,” will join Cornel West, distinguished religion scholar and democratic intellectual, in a conversation with Professor Imani Perry, a celebrated scholar of African American Studies and Law who has written eloquently about racial injustice and “pathways to freedom, equality, and enriched democracy.
I have lots of thoughts and reaction to this plenary, but I think sitting on them a bit longer would serve me well before I start making trite comments.  It was a powerful plenary and I am glad I went.  In passing, however, West and Sales engaged a growing generational debate about the new and evolving movement for racial justice (Black Lives Matter).  This has to be unpacked.
[Look at me using conference language.]
Tomorrow is another day and I haven’t even visited the Book Exhibit yet.  Who knows what new worlds I will find there? Apparently there are two levels!

John Wilsey Checks in From the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting

John Wilsey teaches history and philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Houston, Texas.  John’s most recent book is American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Ideal.  He blogs at To Breathe Your Free Air We are thrilled to have him writing for The Way of Improvement Leads Home this weekend from the floor of the American Academy of Religion meeting in Atlanta.   Here is his first dispatch:
Atlanta is my hometown, so it is great to be surrounded by familiar sights and surroundings. I asked my wife to marry me 19 years ago at the top of the Marriott Marquis, just across from the Hyatt Regency where the book displays are located (she gave me an unequivocal yes, by the way).
No conference can really begin until you secure the coveted and ubiquitous “tote.” Upon checking in, everyone was directed to a separate kiosk to receive their tote—this one sponsored by Baylor University Press. It’s actually a pretty nice bag as these things go. Often, the tote is nothing more than a glorified grocery sack.
I started this morning over at the book displays. I admit I had a bit of a selfish motive—I wanted to make sure that my own books were displayed at the Wipf & Stock and InterVarsity tables. But I also wanted to see what cool new titles were out. So in my first dispatch, I’ll give you a quick look at what I found.
Of course, the book displays at AARSBL are overwhelming to say the least. There’s no way to sum up the experience of walking through the displays in one telling. Suffice it to say that the book display is worth the flight from Houston on its own. And I may have to write more than one post on the book displays, because there is much to be excited about.
So a couple of books I noticed—
While at the Eerdmans table, I came across Rick Kennedy’s The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather. I’m particularly excited to read this one, because any book with the description saying “sets the record straight” gets my attention. Hopefully it will be as provocative as it sounds. I also picked up Jack Mulder’s What Does It Mean to be Catholic?  Mulder is an adult convert to Catholicism, which makes the book all the more compelling. The blurbs from Scott Hahn, Peter Kreeft, and Caroline Simon give the it credibility.
At the WJK table, Paul D. Hanson’s A Political History of the Bible in Americacaught my eye. Hanson treats the subject from the colonial period through contemporary times.
Moving over to the Wipf & Stock table, I was impressed by the size and scope of the display. It was huge—larger than in other years, at least as it seemed to me. Mark R. Teasdale’s Methodist Evangelism, American Salvation: The Home Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1860-1920 looked good, as did The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood, by Christopher R. Altieri.

More later. I’ll be heading down to the Religion and US Empire section later this afternoon. Stay tuned for more exciting news from AARSBL.